Paris hosts Europe-US meeting in effort to salvage Iran nuclear deal
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Top diplomats from three European powers and the United States have held talks in an effort to revive the 2015 deal on Iran's nuclear programme, days ahead of a deadline set by Tehran for action that could hinder reconciliation efforts by limiting international inspections.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian hosted his German and British counterparts in Paris on Wednesday, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joining via videoconference.
The conference takes place ten days before a deadline, set by Tehran, after which Iran will limit access by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The talks constitute a last-ditch effort to get Iran and the US back to the negotiating table, after first Washington, then Iran, distanced themselves from the 2015 nuclear deal.
US President Joe Biden's administration has offered talks with Iran and the European allies, and reversed two largely symbolic steps against Tehran imposed by Donald Trump, as Washington seeks to salvage the nuclear agreement.
On 12 February, France, Germany and the UK, the "E3," issued a statement expressing grave concern that Iran was producing uranium in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal that saw sanctions against Iran lifted in exchange for Tehran scaling down its nuclear programme.
The deal stated that the process of producing uranium metal was to be frozen for 15 years.
The European statement followed reports by the IAEA that Iran had started producing the substance. The agency "on 8 February verified 3.6 gram of uranium metal at Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant in Esfahan”, according to a statement seen by Reuters.
Iran's action marked an increased distancing from the JCPOA after the assassination of its top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November last year. No one has taken responsibility for the killing, and reports blame a wide range of suspects, ranging from the Israeli secret service to a dissident group within Iran's security apparatus.
21 February deadline
Five days after Fakhrizadeh's murder, the all-powerful Guardian Council approved the “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect Iranian Nation’s Interests” bill, passed by the Iranian parliament, which required the country's Atomic Energy Agency to "produce and store at least 120 kilograms of enriched uranium with a 20 percent purity level every year for peaceful purposes".
Article 6 of the legislation says that if sanctions are not lifted within two months, IAEA inspections will be stopped. The deadline is set for 21 February.
But the JCPOA had already started to unravel in May 2018, when US President Donald Trump unilaterally walked away from the agreement, which had been signed three years earlier.
European partners to the deal found themselves split between loyalty to the US, and the deal they signed with Iran. In January 2019, the E3 came up with the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (Instex), a stopgap plan that was designed to allow trade through non-US dollar transactions or barter – without risking US sanctions.
But for a long time, the plan never really took off. When Covid-19 hit Iran hard, the E3 jumped into action. On 31 March, more than a year after it was founded, the first Instex transaction took place, consisting of medical supplies.
According to the state-controlled Mehr News Agency, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said preliminary measures taken by EU in the field of launching Instex were "positive but insufficient”.
The Trump administration said it was willing to return to the talks if Iran was willing to include its missile programme and growing influence in the region, demands that were flatly rejected by Tehran.
In the run-up to possible new talks under the Biden administration, on 4 February, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that France could be a "committed broker" between the US and Iran in trying to get the talks back on track.
Iran says it is willing to return to the JPCOA but under the conditions agreed upon in 2015.
On 17 February, Iran's Mehr News Agency reported that President Rohani had called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and said that "the only way to save the nuclear deal is the return of the US to the JCPOA and the removal of illegal sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran."
During a cabinet meeting on the same day, Rohani also said weapons of mass destruction "have no place in Iran's defence strategy", underscoring Tehran's position as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But he insisted that JPCOA talks cannot continue if European partners insist that Iran's "missile power and its regional influence" be included in them.
Iran on Friday renewed its call for the US to lift all sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump, after an offer for talks from new President Joe Biden's administration.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran would "immediately reverse" its retaliatory measures if the US "unconditionally & effectively" lifts "all sanctions imposed, re-imposed or re-labelled by Trump".
Iran's Isna News Agency reported that IAEA representative Rafael Mariano Grossi will visit Tehran on Saturday "for technical discussions".
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